Inside the Writers’ Room: Jane Espenson

The veteran TV writer explains the unwritten rules of the business, what it’s like to work on beloved shows, and how television credits are like ‘rings inside a tree trunk.’

Like most trades in Hollywood, writing for TV is a faceless craft. For the most part, the audience is blissfully unaware of the people behind the scenes conjuring magic from a blank page to entertain them. This is surprising, considering the television medium is uniquely writer-based; its scribes hold far more power than in the film business. Names like John Wells, Aaron Sorkin, J.J. Abrams, and Joss Whedon may be as close to household names as it comes in television, but those are showrunners—the top of the heap in TV land. What about the trusty writers who work under those names, banging out dozens of script pages, taking a germ of an idea and typing away until it becomes an engrossing, tear-jerking part of your evening programming?

Consider the following: Let’s say you’re a fan of Lost, House, and The Mentalist, all highly rated shows watched by millions. You have seen, in the course of your TV watching, at least 15 hours’ worth of stories made up by Leonard Dick, a past and present writer-producer on all three shows. Trade in USA Network’s In Plain Sight for Lost in that list, and you’ve spent nine hours in the mind of John Mankiewicz—more if you ever watched Miami Vice or Hill Street Blues. If you’re a sci-fi fan who enjoys (or enjoyed), say, Andromeda, Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles, and Fringe, then you’ve been treated to a whopping 30 hours of storytelling from the mind of Ashley Miller.

These are the unknowns who captivate us on a nightly basis with virtually no thanks at all, save a paycheck and a quick screen credit. Writer-producer Jane Espenson, a genre fan who grew up consuming TV in Ames, Iowa, falls somewhere in between the cult hero and the thankless toiler. Almost exclusively due to her work on rabidly beloved genre shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica, Espenson’s work has elevated her to something like a writer’s writer with a reputation for adaptation and cutting wit. Having cut her teeth on early-’90s sitcoms like Dinosaurs and Ellen, her scripts for even the most seemingly antithetical shows, like Tru Calling, The Gilmore Girls, and animated series The Batman have all been infused with Espenson’s recurring themes: class status, post-feminist ideals, and most of all, the pain of being an outsider. 

Part of Espenson’s success has to do with her ability to teach, a quality that connects her to other television demigods like her Buffy boss, Joss Whedon. In his book, Crafty TV Writing, author Alex Epstein says of Whedon, “Any time Joss Whedon comments on one of his own shows, you get a window into a master writer’s perspective. Not only can he write, he knows how he’s doing it.” The same can be said for Espenson, whose website/advice column on TV writing, Jane in Progress, enumerates the dos and don’ts of the business, from writing spec scripts (“Copy the skeleton, then hang your own scraps of flesh on it”) to subverting expectations (“Tee up a joke and then let the ball fall off the tee”).

Last year, Espenson was made a showrunner for the first time in her career, on the Syfy channel’s Caprica, Galactica prequel series. But she stepped aside from that role before the first episode aired in order to focus more on writing. We talked to Espenson about the switch-up, as well as her experience as a sought-after TV writer and the unlikely way she got her foot in the door.

Get In Media: Were you an avid TV watcher growing up?
Jane Espenson: Yes! I watched a lot of television while I was growing up—much more than I do now. I loved some dramas—[I] used to watch Columbo and Mannix and The Streets of San Francisco and such with my dad, and comedies with my mom—Soap, M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart.

GIM: You were studying to be a teacher. How did that lead to you sitting down and attempting a spec script?
JE: I wrote my first attempt at a spec script when I was in grade school or junior high, then I tried again as an undergrad once (that was a spec [of] Perfect Strangers). In grad school, I was studying linguistics with the end goal of an academic job when I gave it another try with a Star Trek: TNG script. I had found out that you could submit scripts to Trek without an agent, and just knowing about the open door was enough of an incentive for me to try again.

GIM: Did you read up on TV formatting or just kind of wing it?
JE: I got a book called How to Write for TV that had some information on formatting, and I think I might have got hold of a script somehow—maybe from a local used bookstore? I have a memory of measuring margins. After I submitted a few spec scripts, I started pitching at Trek and meeting other Bay Area writers who were making the same pilgrimage, and one of them told me about the Disney Fellowship, which is a program for beginning TV writers.

GIM: You won that fellowship on the strength of your Seinfeld specs. What was that like, and did you leave it with a job in hand?
JE: The program was great. It’s now the Disney/ABC Television Writing Program and it’s still a great way to get started. You write scripts under the guidance of Disney execs and you meet a lot of working writers. At the very least, you leave the program with a stack of great writing samples and some good connections. They placed me on two jobs—a brief stint in the final days of Dinosaurs, and then their show Monty.

GIM: Did you do any in-between gigs after the fellowship, like writers’ assistant?
JE: Nope. The fellowship got me read at the show and I was still being paid by the fellowship’s stipend when I started there. I was lucky never to have to work as a writers’ assistant—which was lucky for the shows too, since that is a very hard job that I think I would not have been very good at. Monty was an interesting job. Very long hours, as I recall, but I learned a lot.

GIM: What was the atmosphere like in the writers’ room on those early sitcoms? Was it different from the hour-long dramas you worked on later?
JE: Yeah, sitcom rooms tend to be bawdy and competitive, and to work very long hours. My very first room, at Dinosaurs, was not like this, which I think was a good thing—it let me know that there were a variety of experiences out there. But some of the later ones were very exhausting—the constant rolling competition of the joke room was hard, especially at 2 in the morning. I like my sleep. Drama rooms have more civilized hours. And, honestly, the writing is easier. The setup-punch style of traditional multi-cam sitcoms is exacting and exhausting. Writing a scene feels like building a suspension bridge—the placement of every individual word is so crucial. It’s fascinating, but oof.

“I was certainly not recruited. I had to make
a big effort.”

GIM: Your first writing gigs were so much about comedy—something that really shone through on your Mutant Enemy scripts [Buffy creator Joss Whedon’s production company, Mutant Enemy, is also responsible for Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse; Espenson has written for them all]. How important is that sense of comedic timing in genre writing?
JE: I tell people to work in a comedy room to learn how to write a joke. Then go to a drama so you can actually get your jokes on the air. And it’s really true. And I think dramatic writing of all kinds—not just genre—benefits from comedic confidence. Jokes can do all kinds of things, including decreasing and increasing the tension in a scene, and they’re too good a tool not to use. They’re just true, too, because people in real life make jokes all the time.

 

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Espenson Really Advanced the Genre

It seems to me there has been an incredible uptick in the quality of writing over the years in the Sci-Fi genre, specifically with shows like Firefly, Battlestar Galactica and Caprica. BSG specifically represented a move to themes and character development that rivaled (and in many people’s opinions, eclipsed) any other earth-bound drama out there. Really cool to hear the career story of one of the primary writers behind that.

Fun Fact

According to IMDB, Jane is also responsible for creating the name Zima for the beverage while working at a marketing firm. Wonder if that’s true.